Original book: Joseph Stein
Revised book: David Thompson
Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Director: Bronagh Lagan
The original 1986 Broadway production of RAGS never made it to riches, closing after just 22 performances, including previews. But, bearing in mind the pedigrees of the show’s creators, it couldn’t be all that bad, could it? Sure enough, this scaled down version, with a book revised by David Thompson, was developed in the 1990s and it eventually makes its London debut with Bronagh Lagan’s production, transferring from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre.
Joseph Stein’s book for the hit musical Fiddler on the Roof was based around the persecution of Jews in Russia in the early years of the 20th Century. His work here has the feel of a sequel, telling the stories of Russian Jewish immigrants arriving in New York City circa 1910. After surviving the hazardous crossing, their lives become battles against abject poverty, exploitation, homelessness and anti-Semitism, countered only by dreams of the opportunities that their new country has to offer.
On the evidence seen here, it is hard to imagine how RAGS could ever have been expected to succeed in a large theatre. In this 200-seat venue, with the audience enveloping the stage and musicians mingling with actors, intimacy is key and the show’s often predictable, disjointed narrative becomes secondary to the development of characters. Prime among them is Rebecca, played with superb conviction by Carolyn Maitland, who is determined to use her talents as a seamstress to forge a better life for herself and her young son David.
Lagan can do little to make several lighter scenes work. Most notably, a group outing to the theatre to see Hamlet performed falls terribly flat, but, when the drama is serious, her production rarely falters and a rich array of characters emerges in and around the tenement building where most of the action takes place. Dave Willetts makes Avram, a pious widower, a tormented figure; he is over-protective of his bright-eyed daughter, Bella (Martha Kirby) who is being pursued by budding young songwriter, Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power).
It is in painting a picture of a downtrodden but resilient community that Lagan triumphs. Avram catches the eye of the widow Rachel (Rachel Izen), who makes a point of stressing that, despite advancing years, everything is still in working order. Jack (Jeremy Rose) and Anna (Debbie Chazen) are dressmakers who become exploited ruthlessly by the heartless Bronfman (Sam Attwater) and an Italian Catholic interloper, Sal (Alex Gibson-Giorgio) forms a friendship with Rebecca, trying to involve her in a workers’ strike that he is leading. Here, the story relates to real-life events in New York in 1911.
Charles Strouse’s melodic score is often infused, pleasingly, with echoes of Scott Joplin and Stephen Schwartz’s well crafted lyrics serve the characters and their stories effectively. However, it takes a long time for the show to find a distinctive song that could define it and help it to become more than just a routine American musical. Eventually, Three Sunny Rooms, duetted by Rachel with Avram at a corner of the stage and Bella with Ben at the opposite corner, matches struggle with aspiration and impacts strongly, while the anthemic Children of the Wind leaves behind it a tune to be hummed on the way home.
This musical is not exactly ragged. Rather it is a patchwork of the good and the ordinary, but Lagan’s vivid, emotionally charged and beautifully sung staging raises it to a higher level.
Runs until 8 February 2020